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Plagiarise with pride

Communications is a creative craft. The fastest route to creativity is copying others. The only shame involved is not doing it.

Photo by RODNAE Productions

One of the underappreciated features of communications is creativity. While it’s possible to churn out content on a template model, that quickly grows tired. Audiences don't have to buy what we sell. They can quietly ignore it. Our role isn’t to pump out messages but to win hearts, minds, hands and wallets. To do that, as the old saying goes, we need to make the important interesting, swapping textbook for storybook. And that takes creativity.

Where can we go to source creativity? Sometimes we might get a lucky eureka moment, a gold nugget alighting in our minds while in the shower. But inspiration is no reliable friend. In the real world, a far more dependable source is copying others, or what I like to call enhanced plagiarism.

Plagiarism gets a bad rap in the modern world. We’re warned to steer clear of copying others throughout our schooling years, through penalty of deduction, suspension, expulsion or even litigation. The very word plagiarism acquires an aura of shame. By the time most of us start producing content at work, it’s almost unthinkable we’d stoop so low - or at least to admit to having done so. Which is the real shame because, as the masters have shown us, it’s one of the most useful and necessary tools in the box.

Nobel laureate Bob Dylan has been accused of plagiarism throughout his career (even in accepting his Nobel!). George Harrison was successfully sued for it. Vincent van Gogh spent much of his artistic life copying other paintings. The modern artist Sturtevant made a celebrated career doing it. Even the famously litigious Disney are not immune. It’s difficult to imagine any creative talent not skilled at it. As creative genius Steve Jobs liked to say, “Good artists copy, great artists steal” (an aphorism he openly borrowed from Picasso and from many others before him!).

Most of my comms career highlights were - unbeknownst to my colleagues - acts of plagiarism. An event invitation copied from a Hollywood trailer. A surprise ‘hijack’ townhall stolen from reports of US intelligence. A first-day ‘welcome’ CEO video a remake of a landmark Dr Who episode. A fun, full-year results video copied from the hit film Birdman.

Plagiarism is everywhere and it’s good. The best of us do it. If it helps, we can politely call it something else: ‘tribute to’, ‘inspired by’, or ‘drawing on’. In most cases, we have no fear of litigation - our personal idiosyncrasies and limitations ensure our versions come out different anyway. In roles where we have to produce content at high quality and high volume, there is every reason to use plagiarism and little need to avoid it. So I say go ahead, plagiarise with pride.

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